Volunteer Engagement for Disasters: How American Red Cross Trains Its New Responders

Guest post by Heather Nelson

American Red Cross provides extensive training for its disaster response volunteers prior to a disaster - so everyone is ready when the time comes.The Red Cross responds to approximately 70,000 disasters yearly, according to organization records and public information. Responding immediately to natural and human-made disasters such as hurricanes, floods, fires, and chemical spills demands an enormous volunteer force.

People who choose to join the volunteer ranks with the American Red Cross and other relief agencies must undergo extensive training and preparation in order to provide safe, efficient services. One important aspect of training is preparing volunteers for national deployment. If your nonprofit engages volunteers in location-based projects, the practices employed by the Red Cross could be helpful for you.

Training for the Mission – Provide Contextual Information

The Red Cross has a unique charter, which requires certain response actions and protocol mandated by the federal government. In order to remain consistent, the organization offers extensive training to volunteers in myriad areas. From telephone answering, to providing street delivery of meals to clients impacted by a disaster, each volunteer receives instructions on how and when to provide services.

Training sessions are taught in a classroom setting, but locations vary, from local and regional offices to churches and schools, depending on the community. After completion of each course, volunteers receive cards that show the certification date and issuing center. Volunteers present this card when they arrive at a disaster location as proof they are ready to deliver service to clients. Updating skills and continuing education are ongoing activities for all volunteers with the American Red Cross.

Requirements for Volunteering – Setting Clear Expectations

Volunteers from all walks of life are encouraged to participate. Although there are youth programs, the minimum age for deployment is 18. Individuals must provide information for a background check, current medical history and proof of identity.

Accurate contact information is vital. Providing an email address and all contact numbers makes it efficient to reach you during an emergency. It’s recommended to find cheap cellphone plans at T-Mobile or another provider and designate one phone number for Red Cross access.


One of the primary attributes of the American Red Cross and its volunteers is always being ready to respond immediately when needed. In addition to continually updating skills, individuals available for national deployment often keep a well-stocked deployment “go-bag” ready at all times.

Coordinating organizations often send trained responders to help in extreme situations, such as Hurricane Sandy or floods in the Midwest. Three essentials for collaborative responders are multiple copies of professional licenses and credentials, valid photo identification, and disaster assignment sheets, according to instructions issued to Medical Reserve Corps personnel.

National deployment normally requires a commitment of 2-3 weeks. Since the organization provides transportation, volunteers may fly, drive a rental car, or travel with other volunteers, depending on how quickly they’re needed on location and the job duties they are certified to perform.

Mobilizing and organizing a volunteer force after a disaster requires a great deal of prior coordination, training and preparation. If your organization works with volunteers to respond after disasters, some of the details above will hopefully help guide you to be more efficient and impactful.

Heather Nelson is a freelance writer from New Orleans. In her spare time, Heather volunteers at animal shelters.

(Image by JaxStrong pursuant to the terms of his Creative Commons license.)